Last Updated on 20. February 2021
At the beginning of 2018 I came across Sean Worrall, an artist from London who paints on things he finds on the streets. Old wood or paper get transformed into a colourful piece of art, often containing a heart or leaf. After finishing the artworks, he returns them back to the streets. If you find one of them, you may take it for free. The idea impressed me and I had to contact him. I had so many questions and wanted to learn more about his concept of “art drops”. During a joint walk I was able to join him while art dropping. This is when I recorded the following interview.
Interview with artist Sean Worrall
Hi Sean, what a pleasure to meet you! Thanks for taking me with you today and for giving me an interview for Totally-London.
Shall we start with an intro about yourself? Were you born in London?
No, I am from Wales. Well I grew up in Wales, Anglesey, I came down to London to go to art school in the late 1980s and just kind of stayed.
What made London special at that time?
When I came here it was cheap. I was at art school here, then, after art school I was broke, I was busy working with bands and painting album covers and such and the cheapest place I could find to live was a cheap flat in Tottenham. London was an exciting place, a place where lots of artists were working, lots of bands were playing. It was like a big playground and an exciting place to be. The East End of London was alive with artists and musicians – nobody else really wanted to live here, there was plenty of empty buildings to do creative things in. There were no coffee shops or food places, besides the Brick Lane curry houses. It was like a big blank canvas. A really exciting place to be living, to be painting, to be working with bands, to start my record label, to put on gigs. So, I just stayed here. I never really intended to stay here but I just have.
What do you think of London after living here all these years?
I never really had a passion for London at all, I was never that interested in London. I came from Wales, I did all my art in the north, in Manchester, Liverpool, places like that. I grew up in North Wales. I only came down here because I got into an art school down here.
I don’t see myself as a Londoner, I still see myself as a visitor, a Northerner. My passion for music comes from the North, so does my football team. If I could live anywhere in the world, I would probably live back in the Welsh mountains and I’d be painting them, painting the space, the sea, the sky.
The art I make now is because I live in London. The art I do is based on what I see and feel in a place, right now my art comes from Hackney and East London, a reflection, a reaction to what’s going on here. Hackney is where Sean lives. I can’t paint landscapes here. I paint what I see on the streets and add my voice to it. I have learned to love certain aspects of London, I have learned to love and respect the people who have been here for quite some time. Especially here in East London, I find it disappointing that people who come into London now just push out the locals and don’t respect their community, their places, their pubs, they just take everything over in a very disrespectful way. I don’t know if I love London, but I do like being here, I almost feel part of it, I’ve lived here for more than half my life now.
Tell us more about the concept of your “365 Art Drops”
I started the first year-long art drop piece in 2015. I’ve been painting on things I’ve found on the streets for years, painting on them and then putting them back on the streets for people to take, but I hadn’t thought of doing it as a formal piece of work that lasted a whole year until 2015. So really, I am seeing this second year-long piece called #365ArtDrop18 as one piece of work in 365 parts once again, a one year-long body of work that’s made up of 365 paintings. It also involves the people that find the work and interact with it the people who make contact. That’s a very important part of it for me, the people who use the hashtag and post the photos of themselves with work they find onto their social media feeds and such. Hopefully photos of the finders with the piece of art they’ve taken and not just photos of the piece of art, it is always good to see the people who choose to take the work, to get an idea of who they are and where the pieces have gone.
That’s something that came along with the original piece in 2015, I really really enjoyed the interaction, the feedback. I wasn’t really expecting any of it. It’s not about people saying, ‘oh you’re great, I love your work’ and all that. It’s about the stories that came back from people, that and finding out where the pieces have got to.
What are the best stories that came back to you so far?
I had a great e-mail from a woman who sent this long long message about how her son had died a couple of days before she found one of the pieces I had left in a railway station in Birmingham. And I have kept in touch with her ever since. She felt it was a signal that he was okay, she wrote a very personal e-mail about how the piece comforted her.
Then there was a great story about some school kids whose art teacher had found one of the paintings and then her class started doing their own art drops as a school project, I got all kinds of different stories, so many of them, a chief from San Francisco, people from New York, from Canada, people from Germany, Israel, Sweden, Ireland, there’s a member of the London Symphony Orchestra who has a couple of the pieces hanging in her garden, she invited me to come hear them play…
There was one e-mail and a photo that came from a man from Australia who came to London with his daughter and brought her to show her where her family was from, they found a piece of work by the house they came from and it’s now hanging in their garden in Sydney. I like the idea of the leaves hanging in gardens…
All these great stories came back. I just really enjoy that. I find a great pleasure in the tales people tell me. I also like putting the idea into people’s heads that art doesn’t have to be an expensive thing. That anybody can get involved in it, in collecting art and being part of it. It doesn’t have to be in a gallery with a big price tag on it, art doesn’t always have to be on a white gallery wall. Anyone can collect original art.
So, I did the original year-long #365ArtDrop in 2015,365 paintings in one year, and then a lot of smaller art drops in the two years in between, and then as this year started I thought I have to do the 365 year-long thing again, I really enjoyed it the first time around, so another year-long piece was needed, I’m really enjoying it again.
How many paintings have you dropped so far this year?
I haven’t done too much yet in this year because the weather has been so stupidly bad, and I fear that if I put a free-hanging piece on a wall then it might get blown away and hit somebody. I don’t want that to happen. I‘ve only done 40 pieces so far this year, I’ve a big pile of paintings waiting in my studio for their turn to escape out onto the streets. I’ll do a lot more when the summer comes. It’s not about doing a drop every day, it’s about doing 365 in a year. So as the weather gets better I’ll just go out with a bag of pieces, I’ll go to West London or go to Folkestone or to Brighton or somewhere and just drop a whole load of paintings in one day.
Do you know where your art ends up?
This year so far I know that one piece has gone to Belgium and another to Germany … Sometimes you get feedback straight away, sometimes months later. You never know. I guess by the end of the year I will have heard about the fate of around a quarter of them and the others I‘ll have no idea what has happened to them. I’m sure some end up being thrown away, hopefully most of them find a home and are looked after.
The stars and leaves – are they your signature style?
They evolve all the time. Some people think they are hearts, I never intend them to be hearts, but I don’t mind if that’s what other people see. Some people call them leafhearts. If people see hearts then that’s fine, no one is right or wrong. I see leaves, I think I’m painting new layers of leaves on old things. Right now most of my paintings, including the big pieces that do go into galleries and such, all have leaves in them, leaves are my things at the moment. I paint layers of leaves, the stars are just leaves really, layers of leaves, all about fresh layers over old layers, regeneration, starleaves, leafhearts. This is a lot of what street art is about really, fresh layers of colour and new life on dull old walls.
What kind of street art is appealing to you?
Well a piece of slick street art does very little for me. It’s not what I am about and not really what I want to see. I love layers. I like to see a wall alive with bits of street art that has built up as others add to it, something that was painted by somebody and then someone else has added something as a wall evolves. I like walls where there’s stickers peeling off, where the paint is peeling off, textures, when it’s alive with fresh marks, new energy, layers of street art and different marks from different people. My leaves are, in my head, things that are growing up on top of other things. Fresh layers, fresh leaf growth on old walls, on old bits of wood, on other people’s marks, new paint marks over old paint marks.
Which materials are you working with?
I work with things that people have thrown on the streets. It has to be something I have found on the street, or in a skip or in a broken frame around the back of an old gallery and I love the idea of saving something that’s going to land-fill. My rule for the art drops is that I mustn’t paint on a canvas I‘ve bought from an art shop, it has to be on found unwanted recycled material. I painted on a piece of plastic fridge the other day…
I love acrylic paint, I love painting on large pieces of canvas, bold brushwork. That’s the thing I enjoy more than anything. I paint a lot of bigger canvas pieces in my studio, I do use a lot of spray paint, but mostly I use traditional brush and fresh acrylic paint. I mostly paint on big pieces of canvas, but there’s a great pleasure in finding things like old battered doors out on the streets and dragging them into the studio to paint on, or to find an old torn canvas that someone has thrown out and stitching it back together and working with the marks that are already on it. I’m always sewing and repairing old paint-covered pieces of canvases and such.
Of course, Sean also knows a lot about the Street Art scene in the East End.
On one building in Shoreditch he shows me the “RIP Robbo” piece and explains:
Robbo was one of the original graffiti artists in London back in the days when Banksy was first starting. Robbo and Banksy had quite a beef, quite an ongoing argument. Painting over each other’s work and such. Sadly Robbo died a few years ago so this piece we’re passing now was painted in tribute and everyone knows it should never be painted over.. Team Robbo was his kind of gang of street artists. Robbo originally became known back when he was a rather active Arsenal football fan and he just painted his name when going to football games at away grounds. That is where a lot English graffiti pretty much started out. It was a football thing as much as it was a punk rock or hip-hop thing, different football gangs leaving their names and symbols which eventually became tags. Robbo was doing some really powerful pop art flavoured graff before he passed away.
On tagging another person’s art or painting over street art
Once you put your street art out on the streets, if you choose to paint on the streets, you pretty much have given it away. It’s not yours any more, you can’t be precious about it. People should respect each other’s work, but hey, you can’t expect it to stay there for ever. There was a time when you only painted over something or added to it when you thought you could do something better, but these days there’s an awful lot of very bad disrespectful street art. Some very poor almost childish graff and some really annoying paste-ups. Far too easy to just tediously paste-up the same old tedious piece of computer generated bad graphic design over a real piece of art, there’s one or two very annoying paste-up artists around London at the moment.
About selling street art
Sometimes my art drops will turn up in art galleries and suddenly have price tags on them without anyone asking my permission. But then it’s not for me to say what people do with the pieces they find. I left the art on the street, if someone found it and then sold it to a gallery then so be it. Once you put something on the street, you have kind of given it away. If you’re asking me about walls that people like Banksy have painted that are now being taken down and sold by art dealers, well if you painted it on somebody’s wall and they own that wall I guess the art becomes the property of the person who owns the wall, I guess you’ve given it to them. Street art surely shouldn’t really be about making money though! Surely it was about bypassing galleries and reaching out to people who never go to galleries or people who never get to show art in galleries, about speaking to those who live in the cities you paint in, surely being a street artist isn’t a career option. I don’t consider myself a street artist by the way, I have painted on walls, I’ve painted on streets, a lot of it before the days of social media and such, but I’m not claiming to be a street artist.
I am not overly concerned about street art being preserved, surely it should always be evolving and changing, people painting on it. What I do find annoying is when somebody takes a photograph of a piece and sells the photograph as a print without crediting or paying the artist. I do think that’s a little bit naughty. People really should treat each other in the right way, respect the artists…
What about fashion labels using street artist’s works in their ads without paying the artist?
I haven’t really looked at that particular case about H&M closely but there is something very wrong about people like H&M morally as well as legally, it has happened to me a couple of times. When a fashion label takes a piece of art that an artist has painted on a street wall and includes it in a design then that is very very wrong. If someone sells a one-off piece of art that was painted on their wall and sells it to a collector of art then I have no real problem. But I do have a mayor problem with a fashion label or a design house, or in my case a wallpaper design company, just take something and mass produce it and make money out of it without a fair agreement with the artist they “stole” from.
I also have quite a big problem with street artists who just paint a piece of art on the street just so they can publicise their latest gallery show. And the limited edition over-priced print version that will be on sale in that gallery the week after the wall they painted as a publicity stunt was posted all over social media, that reduces it to nothing more that an advert for a print release. I always thought street art should be a bit more punk rock than that, a bit more hardcore, a little less cynical. A lot of street art is very conservative these days. Very safe, it is in danger of becoming little more than a business, there’s a lot of boring street art these days alongside the bits of excitement.
How did the East End change in the last years?
The East End is always changing, things have gone way way too far now though. It is getting harder to exist here as a new artist unless you’re some kind of rich kid. We’ve lost world-famous art streets like Vyner Street or Redchurch Street. We’ve lost lots of the DIY artist-led galleries and spaces in areas like Hackney Wick, people are getting gentrified out, rents are going up, studios are being knocked down. There were 15 galleries in Vyner Street five or six years ago, then gentrification started to really bite around the time of the Olympics in 2012..
I used to have a gallery in Vyner Street, we got kicked out so they could knock it down and build some flats that no one from East London can afford to live in. Today there is only one gallery left ON Vyner Street. Back then the people who owned the buildings were happy to have us in them because it meant that somebody was looking after the buildings. You could rent things for really cheap prices and put shows on. Now you can’t rent anymore, even if there were any spaces that hadn’t been turned into disrespectful coffee shops and arrogant cafes that the local East End people aren’t really welcome in. The new people moving in need to respect the place and other original people a lot more than they do.
On the collaboration work of ROA and Jim Vision in Shoreditch
It finally went. Normally, when there’s a piece of art everybody likes, it tends to be respected. I don’t know what happened to that wall or who painted over it. The ROA hedgehog was there for abour five years and it did keep evolving as other painted around it, sometimes respectfully, sometimes disrespectfully. I never get too precious about street art, I think it is important to document and record it, but things should evolve all the time. I’m a big fan of ROA, he doesn’t seem to be so active in London these days, for a while back there he was just about the most exciting street artists around. I love what he does in galleries, I need more ROA.
On female street artists
There are quite a few women in London painting on walls now, this is good. Of course sometimes, unless you know who someone like Mad C is, you don’t know if she is a he or a she. Surely in the end the gender of the artist doesn’t matter.
But street art is a bit of an ego thing. To put a piece of art on the street wall and say “here, look at me, look at me me me me”. That is a very male thing to do. There are some great female street artists, but really, an artist is an artist, unless they’re making a strong feminist statement and making a point, an artist is just an artist.
One of my favourite artists has to be Swoon. She’s from NY, her paste ups are really exciting. I guess you would think of her more of a contemporary gallery artist these days as most street artists do. She’s kind of evolved into being a contemporary fine artist, an excellent artist who’s kind of outgrown the street. But she is one of my favourites. I just love her work. I can’t really explain why.
Let me see, I really like Mad C, her walls and her use of colour is always exciting. In London you have Aida Wilde, she’s always cutting with her paste ups and attitudes, she always rewarding. Kut is good, she paints in a really stylish way. A lot of my favorite artists are female right now, both street arts and contemporary gallery artists, people like Emma Harvey, Julia Maddison, Megan Pickering, Vesna Parchet…
About finding the perfect spot for dropping an artwork
I always consider the background, the colour and texture of the wall is very important to me. In the last weeks I painted a lot in orange and yellow and reds. I tend to be always very bright in terms of the colours I am using and I have to carefully pick the walls I hang the pieces on. The colours can’t clash with the walls, I am very picky about where I hang a piece. And it is good to add some colour to the grey streets of London now and again.
The only street artist I really know who was born in Hackney and has lived here all the time is a guy called Charlie McFarley. I would guess he’s in his thirties or maybe even older by now now but his paintings are always very very bright, he says that’s because he grew up in the grey dirt of the East End of London, he used bright colours all the time as a kind of childhood escape and he’s carried on doing it.
About dropping artworks in other cities
I hardly ever go anywhere outside of London these days. I‘m a workaholic, a paint addict. I stay in my studio all the time – I just love painting! I paint all day and I paint all night, I paint every single day. I never feel I need to go on holiday or to go and experience other places because there’s just so much to experience here in London. I occasionally escape to the seaside for a bit of recouping now and again. Occasionally I will leave art in other British cities, or in places like Folkestone or Brighton or Hastings, I do like daytrips to the seaside. One day I might go art dropping in Berlin or some such place, I guess I almost am a Londoner now..
What do you think of Marmite?
I don’t really have an opinion on marmite. I don’t love it and I don’t hate it either. Hate is a very strong word. There are only few things I really hate. Marmite is good for cooking with. Putting it in a soup or something, I don’t like brown paint that much, will that do?
But there are people who eat in on bread…
Oh God, yeah (he sounds quite shocked), I don’t really like Marmite…
About Monty’s Bar on Brick Lane
A lot of street artists hang around here and show their work. Often the guys behind the bar are artists. There is a small exhibition room downstairs. You can always find an artist or two drinking in here…
Following Sean Worrall on Social Media
To find out where Sean drops his artwork – keep in mind that the project will run for the rest of the year – follow him on Instagram and Facebook. Don’t forget: If you found one of his artworks – get in touch and tell him where you will take that piece.
If you prefer a short-cut to owning a real Sean Worrall – you can buy via his shop. He does international shipping.
Thank you so much, Sean, for taking me with you that day! It was great fun! And you made me aware of all the trashed wood and empty frames on London’s street. Each time I spot one, I think of you and wonder how you would transfer the piece into art.
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